When I was growing up, my Mom controlled all the music in our house. That meant I was raised on the sweet sounds of ABBA and Adult Contemporary radio stations—the first time I met someone named Fernando, I almost embraced him like an old friend. I was the only child in the world who was looking forward to Disney’s Tarzan because it featured new tracks from Phil Collins. My music bubble burst when I was 10-years-old and I realized how much my disco-drenched childhood had betrayed me. I didn’t know what gangster rap was; I didn’t know anything about grunge. I was spending my time at home playing Super Nintendo and listening to the hottest hits of 1976 while my classmates were watching the MuchMusic Countdown every week. In a moment that would define my approach to popular music for the rest of my life, I decided to play catch-up by buying the coolest album I could possibly imagine: Big Willie Style. Basically, the ABBA of rappers.
I was a nerdy Black kid in need of a role model, and Will Smith was already a household name. By 1997, he had graduated from TV to movies after six successful seasons of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Bad Boys, Independence Day, and Men in Black were all huge hits. Will Smith was a light-skinned Black guy (like me!), funny (like me?), and universally beloved (citation needed.) I spent the next decade-plus of my life with a simple question in the back of my head: What Would Will Smith Do? In no uncertain terms, this album is why I grew up to be a corny-ass adult: I learned from the best.
But corny rap existed before Will Smith (from the Rappin’ Duke to Vanilla Ice), and it persists to this day (Macklemore is like right there.) Will Smith was, and remains, different. Some sort of sincere alchemy of uncool sincerity that only works because of the charisma of the man spitting his squeaky-clean schoolyard rhymes. And nowhere is that more apparent than with his first solo album as Will Smith.
Big Willie Style is an album of its time. Released 20 years ago this week, it runs 54 minutes across 16 tracks, four of which are era-appropriately shitty skits featuring Jamie Foxx as A Personal Favour To Mr. Smith. Playing the album in its entirety is like listening to your uncle have a funny conversation in the next room while the radio is blasting ‘70s and ‘80s hits. Every single track on the album samples some of the most beloved funk, disco, and soul songs of all time:“Gettin’ Jiggy wit It” is Will Smith rapping over “He’s The Greatest Dancer” by Sister Sledge; “Just The Two Of Us” literally gives a writing credit to Bill Withers because Smith kept the entire song identical and inserted some heartwarming rhymes about the non-Jaden son he no longer talks about in public. It takes confidence to sample the exact same beat as “Rapper’s Delight,” and yet Smith goes there on “It’s All Good,” which also features one of the worst rap hooks not performed by Chingy: “Livin lovin, lovin livin, it’s all good/I’m lovin livin, it’s all good.”
Half of the album’s tracks are forgettable. Even the title track, featuring an excellent Earth, Wind and Fire sample and bars from Lisa Left Eye Lopes failed to find life as a single or as a beloved deep cut. By all accounts, the album should have gone down as an inoffensive project from a rapper-turned-actor; a fun piece of pub trivia about a famous actor (like how Mark Wahlberg used to be in a musical group called The Funky Bunch and also has a documented history of racially-motivated violence towards Blacks and Asians!).
But then Big Willie Style went 9x Platinum.
Will Smith makes songs about his movies: It’s a joke that has endured for years, despite the fact that he only did it three times (the first two Men in Black movies and, of course, Wild Wild West) and that the most recent one was in 2002. But people’s minds go there for a reason: He was the only person doing it. Singing your own theme song was common enough in TV sitcoms: From All in the Family, to Frasier, to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Will Smith was different. The title track to Men in Black was such a hit, the official movie soundtrack went 3x Platinum. So for the record, Will Smith sold 12-million albums across two releases in 1997 alone. He put “Men in Black” on both albums and no one gave a shit. It’s the final track on Big Willie Style. He knew what he was doing.
Will Smith turned pop rap singles into cross-media branding opportunities that Marvel would sacrifice a generation of teen starlets to attain. He lived and died on the strength of his singles, and Big Willie Style had five of them. The album wasn’t an end-to-end classic, and it wasn’t designed to be. It was the most convenient way you could hear “Gettin’ Jiggy wit It,” “Miami,” “Just the Two of Us,” and “Men in Black” in one place. And tying it all together was Will Smith’s signature rhyme style: No swear words, no sexuality, and not even the lightest hint of menace. In a musical genre that grew in scope and power due to its ability to speak to the truth of the modern Black experience, Smith was delivering lines in pig latin in the first verse of “Jiggy.” (Illway the anmay on the anceday orflay, for the record.)
But here’s the thing: It felt authentic. Will Smith was a Black guy in modern America, and it was pretty easy to buy that he didn’t like swearing, that any descriptions of his sexual exploits would just be embarrassing and uncomfortable for everyone involved, and that he had never thrown a punch since he had been in one little fight as a teenager. He was a party-rapping teen in the 1980s who came up with his DJ friend, and now he was a party-rapping adult who somehow wrote wholesome rhymes about being rich and famous.
It’s corny, but it was honest. And that’s why his schoolyard rhymes always worked well with the disco and funk sounds he would borrow for his tracks; they shared a mutual vibe of good-natured wholesomeness. In a decade that brought us horrorcore, a clan of rappers that took their personas and music samples from Kung Fu movies, and multiple aggressive reinventions of what it meant to be a female MC, there was room in the ever-expanding Black Experience for Will Smith. The same Will Smith who starts “Candy,” (ostensibly one of his sexier tracks) by insisting that he would never hit on a married woman (“O.P.P.” this ain’t) before ending the song with exactly 18 candy-themed puns in a single verse.
And if there was room for someone like Will Smith to not just be Black, but be successful, beloved, and cool (in his own way) in the world, then there was room for me. At 10, I needed that more than anything. Hell, I still need it at 30.
Smith would never have a hit record at the scale of Big Willie Style again. Willennium went 2x Platinum pretty much on the strength of “Wild Wild West” and an amazing title pun alone. His subsequent albums touched gold and didn’t do much else. But they didn’t need to—the man had proven his point. Big Willie Style is a weird-ass listen, and worth a replay on Spotify today at the very least. It has what can only be described as a love song from a father to a son; a track that seems like it was conceived by the Miami tourism board; a passionate rap where Smith is furious that a woman won’t let him marry her and love her forever; and, of course, pig latin coming out of the mouth of an adult man.
It also represents a Black man at his most powerful and popular point in life being himself for an hour, with all of the cartoony-but-clean swagger, confidence, and corniness that entails. It was a style that he alone seemed to possess, and no one else even tried to emulate.
Will Smith seemed to know it too; after all, he named his album after it.
Mike Sholars almost dressed up as Jim West for Halloween. Follow him on Twitter.